Do you know the story of the first giraffe to set foot on French soil? In 1826 Mohammed Ali the viceroy of Egypt decided to present to the King of France Charles X a graceful female baby giraffe. The arrival of such an unfamiliar animal aroused such a stir that the entire French country lived in the happiness of the adventures of the beautiful stranger for almost a year.
It all started in 1825 when Berbardino Drovetti, the zealous consul of France in Cairo, received a circular from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared by the Natural History Museum calling for specimens of exotic animals. The Pasha Mohammed Ali had just received two pretty young giraffes from a Sudanese lord. Sending a giraffe in France would certainly be enough to make a magnificent coup. The French did not have any specimen of this giant of the savannah and a just a few engravings providing approximate description that Buffon had written from fanciful accounts by explorers.
This ruminant which could reach 5 feet tall and weigh 1000 kg was named Caméléopardis because it was thought to be the fruit of love between a leopard and a camel! Drovetti slipped the idea to the pacha’s ear, making him dangling the infinite gratitude of the King of France. But Egypt was in a very tense political climate with France because of its involvement in the suppression of the revolt of the Greek Christians against the Turks. The Pasha found the idea very wise and instructed his consul to do the delicate transporting of the animal with a long neck. Four months later, the two baby giraffes ascended the Nile by boat to Cairo. One was for France and the other for England which had called for a specimen like the one the French expected.
In France, officials were bursting with enthusiasm as never before was a giraffe arrived in France! But how to send such a treasure? Drovetti, promoted in a snap to giraffe specialist, got a short-term loan from the king and wrote a list of recommendations: the animal had to drink 25 liters of milk per day, so ne needed with him three dairy cows. In order to fight against the brutal effect of expatriation, it should be accompanied by two young Sudanese men, and finally he was also surrounded with antelopes and horses. Thus the King`s giraffe sailed on a small ship with two masts in the bridge which had an opening covered with straw, so that it could unfold its long neck without hurting itself.
A shelter was built over its head to protect it from the sun. The strange craft landed Marseille on October 23rd, 1826 without further incident except a cow suffering from seasickness! The prefect of the Bouches-du-Rhône, well aware of the interest aroused from such an arrival, decided to install the immigrant for the winter in the courtyard of the Prefecture, where he had prepared special heated apartments . It was soon the show in town: all the good company ran from Provence. Academics took turns day and night to jot down all the details of his behavior and discovered with astonishment that the giraffe was mute: her throat was so elegant but without vocal cords. The newspapers spoke of it. During daily walks organized by the prefect and surrounded by mounted police, the crowd was delighted.
The first days of spring, the king showed signs of impatience and began to call for his giraffe. But to transport this cumbersome child of the tropics? A brief quarrel flared: should it be conveyed by sea, using the rivers or on land? Despite his fragile health and 55 years of age, zoologist Saint-Hilaire decided to embark on the adventure and arrived in Marseilles in April for the preparations of the departure. It was then found out that the giraffe was naked! He had to make a costume on the field for the journey: the giraffe was therefore clothed with an imperial garment fully buttoned, with a hood stretched enough to cover the head and neck and struck with both the arms of the King of France and those of the Pasha of Egypt.
A strange caravan set off on May 19th, 1827: the giraffe dressed and shod, and his Sudanese companions, the cows, some Egyptians in costume, a valet in charge of transporting the surviving antelope, two sheep and luggage, and some gendarmes and their frames and finally a whole host of onlookers. It was decided that the giraffe would under the supervision of the police, give two hearings a day: one for the people and one for the notables. It arrived in Lyon on June 6. At each stop, the curious people crowded and they were bedazzled to no end: see how its eyes are large and velvety, her elegant walk, her noble head carriage. But when the giraffe unexpectedly left its placid mood to snatch a few sprigs of mimosa of a sudden, a shudder of horror ran through the crowd which had seen a black snake coming out of her mouth!
Shortly before the end of June, Paris was in sight. Carriage tours and boats on the Seine proposed the most eager to go to meet the giraffe as expected. On June 30th, the King demanded that it visited him as soon as possible in his home in Saint-Cloud. The procession set off once again for a very formal march along the Seine fifteen kilometers with the garrison of Paris leading the way, general horses with feathers, professors and dignitaries in their robes of great pomp. The King, the Duke of Angouleme, the Duchess, the Duchess of Berry and her two children were there to receive the stranger.
The giraffe behaved perfectly: she snatched the rose petals gently offered by the sovereign, the duchess slipped a garland of flowers around its neck and children stroking his beautiful spotted coat. On the way back, masses of spectators were difficult to contain. Over the next six months, 600,000 Parisians bought tickets to visit the giraffe which came from Egypt. Although its regimen was considerably diversified attending the tasting of its daily milk remained a very popular show: tilting its neck to the bucket placed on the ground, it did the splits with its front legs to the cheers of the crowd. The toll bridge of Austerlitz, which was one of the access roads to the menagerie, made an unprecedented revenue, tickets were sold at double the price for a closer look at the show. Then the glory of the exotic animal lost its novelty and Balzac described the decline in a story published by the newspaper La Silhouette.
However, the giraffe lived peacefully until the age of 21 years between the gardens and its furnished apartments in the rotunda of the Jardin des Plantes, with heated and padded mats. Sharing it was its trainer, faithful cook buffing and caring coat, who lodged for twelve years on a balcony suspended inside the rotunda at head height of his beloved animal.
After the war of 1914, the Museum had too many stuffed giraffes as these elegant animals had subsequently invaded the zoos, having easily enough acclimated to captivity and even given birthrise to many babies. The girafe from the Pacha of Egypt, the first of its kind opening a route between Africa and France, made a final trip to the Museum of La Rochelle and can be admired along the Orangutan of Empress Josephine.